Is artificial intelligence the key to communicating with aliens?
Researchers used machine learning to discover 72 new fast radio bursts from a mysterious source 3 billion light years from Earth.
In radio astronomy, fast radio bursts are high-energy astrophysical phenomenon of unknown origin; the bright pulses of radio emission last mere milliseconds and are thought to originate from distant galaxies.
Their source, however, remains unclear.
“This work is exciting not just because it helps us understand the dynamic behavior of fast radio bursts in more detail, but also because of the promise it shows for using machine learning to detect signals missed by classical algorithms,” according to Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and principal investigator of Breakthrough Listen.
In the 12 years since Duncan Lorimer discovered the first fast radio burst in 2006, many more have been found, including the repeating FRB 121102—the focus of this investigation.
The team focused on radio signals from 400 terabytes of data, recorded by West Virginia’s Green Bank Telescope over a five-hour period in August 2017.
A previous study using standard computer algorithms identified 21 bursts—all seen within one hour.
Employing a new, powerful machine-learning algorithm, UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Gerry Zhang & Co. reanalyzed the data, finding an additional 72 bursts.
“This work is only the beginning of using these powerful methods to find radio transients,” Zhang said in a statement. “We hope our success may inspire other serious endeavors in applying machine learning to radio astronomy.”
The results of Zheng’s convolutional neural network—the same type Internet companies use to optimize search results and classify images—could help astronomers identify the source of these enigmatic beats.
The study is described in an article published by The Astrophysical Journal and available for download from the Breakthrough Listen website.
This has been a banner year for fast radio bursts: Australia’s Parkes Observatory in March reported three, including one (FRB 180309) with the highest signal-to-noise ratio to date. And this summer’s FRB 180725A marks the first detection of a blast under 700 megahertz—as low as 580 MHz.
Don’t get your hopes up, though. If aliens do contact us, it probably won’t be for another 1,500 years. In the meantime, check out these signs that aliens may already have made contact with us. And stay up to date on all things extraterrestrial here.
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